Summer Jam ’73: New York’s Largest Social Gathering (Cuomo would be Pissed)

In 2020, it is nearly impossible to imagine 600,000 people gathering anywhere, but especially in the rural town of Watkins Glen for Summer Jam ’73. For live music enthusiasts, summer is the best time of the year. The warmest months typically mean road trips with friends to exotic cities like Hartford, Connecticut; Bangor, Maine; and Camden, New Jersey. It means forgetting your tent stakes and having to make new friends by begging for extras at music festivals. Summer is when the sun stays up the latest, the air smells the dankest, and live music infuses with nature in the most powerful ways.

As many festival professionals, seasoned Shakedowners, and road warriors are isolated in their hometowns waiting for social ‘undistancing’ to begin, we take a trip back in time to July 1973 — to Summer Jam at Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway. Thanks to Dave Smith’s Historic Essay, and many other stories written by attendees of the mega-event, we’ve put together a list of 1973 Flashbacks from that iconic yet blurry weekend. 


With 600,000 people crammed onto 95 acres, Watkins Glen became one of the most densely populated areas on Earth! It is estimated that 1 in every 400 Americans trekked to the event, many being young adults from the Northeast. 


New York State Police estimated 20 miles of roadblocks (with over 50 miles of traffic) by 4am Saturday morning — 8 hours before the first band was set to take the stage. Traffic was so backed up many guests abandoned their cars and walked tens of miles to get in. On Wednesday night, 48 hours before the actual event, police estimated roughly 50,000 new guests in a town of 3,500. By Thursday, that figure doubled and by Friday night, Watkins Glen was a quarter-million strong. New York State Troopers recalled Woodstock and the nightmarish traffic problems. This was worse.


Tents, tarps, flip-flops, beer cans, strollers, coolers, empty peanut butter jars, and fancy sun hats were among the items caked into the mud long after the event was over. Much like New York’s iconic music festival four years earlier, Woodstock, Summer Jam ’73 had its fair share of torrential rain and ass-shaking hippies to create an Upstate NY mud bath for the ages. 


The Band and the Allman Brothers Band both put on longer (and more rocking) soundchecks than usual to warm up the early attendees, but The Grateful Dead put on a two-set pre-show for the ages. Bassist Phil Lesh did his best to remind the crowd, “This is still just a test,” as they introduced Set II, but happily, no one was buying it. “This whole thing is a fraud, we’re really clever androids,” Lesh announced before breaking into a legendary “Bird Song.” 


How do you take the beauty of the Finger Lakes Region and make it even more spectacular? Drugs. Jamaican grass, speed, LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline, cocaine, and a suspicious clown peddling Ex-Lax were a few of the items found at the mind-altering buffet that weekend. Dealers made so much money selling everything from animal tranquilizers to bags of oregano, that some of them rented U-Haul storage trailers just to leave behind come Sunday morning. 


With over half a million young adults gathered from all parts of the country, there was almost zero violence (one stabbing reported). A 74-year old Watkins Glen native, George Rehety, reported from his lawn chair, “You know, these are nice kids. I haven’t seen one fight.” An eight-year-old from nearby Corning, NY had this stellar recap: “Music was good, but I couldn’t understand the words. What was that funny smell? The food that I tasted was really yummy.” 


600,000 drunk and stoned young people in blazing heat — what could go wrong? The sheriff of Schuyler Country was Maurice Dean of Watkins Glen. As one of the youngest sheriffs in the Empire State, his age helped him understand the prevalent generation that was “invading” his town. When comparing the Summer Jam crowd to the Can-Am crowd just one week earlier, a mounted cop said, “I’d rather deal with these kids than the race crowd any day. I’ve never been called ‘Sir’ so many times in my life.”


The drug of choice for the weekend was Jack Daniels and Canadian Club whiskey. Pull tab beer cans like “Genny” went for 99 cents a six-pack, but only if you were prepared. The local beer suppliers were fresh out.  “And I’d filled the place with beer, up to the ceiling,” Jack Mafianey, the Beverage Baron himself, said. “This is ten times bigger than the Grand Prix.” With the biggest party on Earth happening in a tiny town, beer disappeared. According to Dave Smith’s record, concert beer initially went for $.75 a can and when all the ice melted, warm beer cost a quarter. 


Nude swimmers were surfacing all over the beautiful Finger Lakes Region. At the end of Main Street, Chequaqua Falls saw its fair share of bare butts, and Aunt Sarah’s Falls in Montour Falls became a communal bathtub by the Sunday morning. Locals laughed at the sight of concertgoers emerged in the local ponds off County Route 16 — a favorite for Watkins Glen snapping turtles that loved to chomp anything that dangled past them. One local couple looked outside their window to see a trio of young women spraying each other down with a hose. Not the usual Saturday night ritual in Watkins Glen. 


Forget about fast food in rural Finger Lakes towns back in 1973. Jim Teemley’s Meat Market and Deli was the next best thing for the dry-mouthed hippies that descended on the community. Teemley’s wife recalled, “It was as orderly as a school cafeteria, the kids were very polite and mannerly, and there were no incidents of potato chip bags or candy being stolen.” On Route 414, the Simpson’s store ran out of food at a record pace, and although the Raceway was prepared for 150,000, they didn’t properly supply for four times that amount. Luckily, with free entry, the extra $10 fans brought for the now free concert entry was more than enough to acquire sustenance.

While the world may never see another Summer Jam ’73, music festivals will return. The sweet sound of live music will fill the air. You and your friends will make unforgettable memories. And concertgoers will wake up on another hazy Monday morning with mud in their Birkenstocks. 2020 may prevent us from partying with 600,000 like-minded people, but it won’t stop us from discovering the wonders of nature and finding community through the chaos.  

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